I referred to myself as a pagan in conversation with my beautiful and sexy wife a few days ago (we were talking about piddly, meaningless stuff like the meaning of life), and she recognized the significance: it was a casual but meaningful declaration of spiritual identity of the kind that I have not been able to make in years.
It wasn’t just a slip, either. I have been thinking about this and I came to an important realization. One of the issues I have been grappling with in the background of my mind is if at the end of the day I basically think that religion and spirituality are highly subjective and have more to do with assigning meaning to human existence than they do with making objective truth-claims about the universe, why shouldn’t I have just stayed Mormon? Wouldn’t it have been easier, after all, for me to just figure out how to reconcile the religion I was raised with than to try to blaze a completely new spiritual trail? My gut rebels against the idea of staying Mormon, but why? I think Mormonism’s truth-claims are bogus, but that’s not really the issue for me (except it kind of is, because Mormonism spends a lot of time and spiritual effort insisting that its truth claims are literal truth). I have problems with the Church as an institution, but a lot of liberal and New Order Mormons figure out ways to deal with that, and the insistence of the orthodox believer notwithstanding, my relationship with the organizational church should not really affect how I feel about the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, right?
So why do I feel like remaining Mormon, or going back to Mormonism, would just be unacceptable? I think it is because I never really internalized Mormonism in the first place. Sure, I internalized some ways of thinking about religion because I didn’t know any better–some cultural transmission from my parent subculture is inevitable–but in a spiritual sense, I was always torn and doubtful about Mormonism and I was always drawn to mythology, the gods, and the spiritual power of the wild places of the earth. As a little kid I was obsessed with mythology. As a young adolescent I stayed awake all night with my best friend on Boy Scout camp-outs talking about Beltaine. As a teenager I flat-out just wanted to be a druid. As a young adult I was absolutely enthralled by Joseph Campbell, the Arthurian romances, Celtic myth, and the cosmic and spiritual significance of poetry and literature.
Yes, when I was nineteen, I “got a testimony” and went on a mission, and began to live a fairly orthodox Mormon life. But let’s not give my conversion too much credit. The coercive pressure from my family was immense-it was made clear to me that being an adult meant setting aside childish things like entertaining the possibility of paganism, and taking Mormonism seriously as the One True Religion. People I trusted and relied on made it absolutely clear that there was no viable moral alternative, that anything less than fully getting with the program meant personal weakness, laziness, and a lack of integrity. So I did what I was supposed to.
But the pagan inside me did not sleep too soundly. As a young adult I was captured by the power of Norse myth, by the dynamic majesty of romantic-era classical music (I discovered Sibelius, and it was love), and ultimately by the brutal, mythic energy of heavy metal.
On top of this, I have noticed a clear pattern in my life: when I have lived out of touch with nature, I have been depressed, unbalanced, and extremely mentally unhealthy. Proximity and involvement with the natural world are simply things I need for spiritual wholeness. And I have consistently had feelings about love, the feminine, and sex that have been reverent, passionate, and worshipful.
The point is, I have been a pagan all along. It doesn’t matter that I went to sacrament meeting every week. It doesn’t matter that I spent two years as a missionary trying to convert people to Mormonism. Mormonism never really fit. My mother and I had countless discussions and arguments about religion and point of view: in her mind the right thing to do was to completely internalize Mormonism, and subvert your entire mind to it, to relinquish all non-Mormon thought as something unwelcome and alien. I always wanted to take the point of view of an outsider, because I always was an outsider.
I was a pagan, and I always have been.